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Interview with Mikhail Gorbachev

HARDtalk's Tim Sebastian interviewed former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Here is the full transcript of the interview, broadcast on 15 September 2000

Tim Sebastian: How much do you share the concern of many people in Russia about how the loss of the Kursk submarine was handled by the authorities?

Mikhail Gorbachev: August was really tough - you could say we went through a kind of crisis. The explosion in the underpass in Moscow, then the nuclear submarine catastrophe, and the fire in the Ostankino television tower - all this put the spotlight on some poor media management.

Tim Sebastian: So the information was handled badly, the information handed down to the public?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I think the authorities initially - in all cases, but particularly with the submarine - well actually, things were pretty clear straight away with the blast in Moscow - the authorities didn't give out the full information. I even felt that the president himself didn't get all the facts. And that's really bad.

Tim Sebastian: Did it remind you of Soviet days when the authorities used to lie about everything?

Mikhail Gorbachev: It certainly did. I'd been through all that. Why do you think I pushed through the policy of glasnost and gave people some freedom? I used to say we couldn't have no-go areas for the public. That's what bureaucracy thrives on - lack of information. So if we want to be free and democratic people have to be informed and should know.

Tim Sebastian: So Putin did not draw any lessons from the past?

Mikhail Gorbachev: Everyone's got to live his own life and learn his own lessons, everyone has his share of failure and success.

Tim Sebastian: That's a very diplomatic answer.

Mikhail Gorbachev: No, no. I've already said this publicly. It seems to me that Putin didn't get the facts at the start of the crisis. The problem is he needed to intervene - and instead of doing that, he stalled for time. That was clearly an error of judgement.

Tim Sebastian: There was a situation when people stopped believing the authorities because they lied about specific events concerning the situation and then people found out that the authorities lied to them, and so the trust in Putin's government is finished, isn't it?

Mikhail Gorbachev: It wasn't quite as you are saying. There was a succession of events. Putin made a mistake when he saw that something serious had happened - he stayed put and took no action.

Only later did he go to the scene of the accident, he met sailors' relatives, tried to make amends. But he'd already made a grave miscalculation. It seems to me that since then he's grown noticeably older. It's been a lesson to him.

Tim Sebastian: Vladimir Putin - a relatively inexperienced politician. Do you trust him to lead the Russia that you left behind?

Mikhail Gorbachev: Yes, I think he's making some headway - handling the levers of government, sitting pretty confidently in the saddle. I met him a couple of days after the underpass bombing, and he retained his composure. He wasn't panicking, he was thinking pretty clearly about how to handle it.

Tim Sebastian: Something cold there in his eyes, do you think?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I'll tell you something, he's different, he's got his own style. He's not Gorbachev or Yeltsin. He is Putin. He is off a different generation

He's 47 - and that's quite a change from the old Soviet days. He comes from the provinces, so he's not tied in with any of the old boy networks in Moscow.

That's an advantage on one level, but it's also a problem. It's hard for him to get his own team together, he's learning the ropes. And in a country like Russia, with so many problems, I think he should be given time.

Tim Sebastian: Putin came from the KGB. And I wondered if you ever trusted the KGB as general secretary. Because I remember from your memoirs when you were made general secretary you and your wife went into the garden to talk about it because you didn't want to be overheard. Did you ever trust the KGB or indeed did you ever control them?

Mikhail Gorbachev: Well if you mean to suggest that Putin isn't to be trusted then I'm sorry - [laughs].

Tim Sebastian: No, that was not my question.

Mikhail Gorbachev: Well I'll answer that too. It's a question that's come up a few times both in Russia and here in the West. They'd say to me, "President Gorbachev, Putin's from the KGB." And I'd say, you could ask the same question of the Americans. Where did George Bush once work? The CIA.

Tim Sebastian: Director of Central Intelligence.

Mikhail Gorbachev: There you go. So it all depends on the particular individual.

Tim Sebastian: The second part of the question.

Mikhail Gorbachev: I'll tell you - and this is very important. Putin's involvement in the KGB was not at the time when it was playing a role that was fairly repressive, shall we say. He was involved in completely different things that were pretty inconsequential, compared to the old KGB.

Tim Sebastian: But the second part of the question - did you control the KGB?

Mikhail Gorbachev: Alright. You think I'm not going to answer you - but I will. The old KGB cried out for reform.

Of course, every country needs its security and intelligence agencies - nothing new in that. But what the KGB was, was something different.

Then, its job was not only to ensure security and intelligence, but also to suppress any and all free thought - in the name of the KGB. So I knew pretty well what I was dealing with and when I should go out into the garden for a chat.

Tim Sebastian: One direct question. Where you ever afraid of the KGB?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I wasn't afraid of anything. I really wasn't. I'm not that kind of person.

Tim Sebastian: No fear, no nightmares?

Mikhail Gorbachev: No. But I knew I had to be careful. And that's different.

Tim Sebastian: Can we talk about Chechnya? There is a huge amount of concern in the West - not only about terrorism - and those acts have been attributed to Chechen rebels - but also about the activities of Russian forces . Do you share the widespread concern that atrocities may have been carried out by Russian troops in Chechnya?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I think they were carried out. There were violations that might have been unintentional, but there were actions that require proper investigation.

While these investigations are underway I cannot assume the role of judge and jury. As for politics, back in 1994 Yeltsin issued an ultimatum to Chechnya about disbanding their fighters and handing over weapons and said the troops would attack within 48 hours.

I said on television - both Russian and international - that I was against all that - moving in the troops, against ultimatums. And I warned that if we continued in this way, we'd run the risk of a bloodbath or full-scale war in the Caucasus.

After all I know that region - I grew up there, worked there, the situation is very delicate there - it needs constant attention, flexibility. People need to be treated with respect. In fact I offered to act as intermediary - that was the only time I did.

Tim Sebastian: But the offer was rejected.

Mikhail Gorbachev: Yeltsin never replied. The result was a war in which 100 thousand people died - 100 thousand people sacrificed in this region in peacetime - in a war against our own citizens. It should never have happened.

Tim Sebastian: But are you telling me you could have stopped this conflict?

Mikhail Gorbachev: Yes, there were plenty of opportunities to stop it.

Tim Sebastian: How many lessons did you learn from the time in the early '90s when Soviet troops opened fire in Lithuania and Georgia? From the blood that was shed then?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I actually devoted two volumes of my memoirs to this whole drama and the political epic. There are quite a few admissions in there. Even though perestroika and glasnost brought about important changes, greater freedom, political pluralism, religion, dissent, all that sort of thing.

Tim Sebastian: But personal lessons from those incidents ...

Mikhail Gorbachev: Listen, I can only say this my way - so if you keep asking questions it just takes up more time.

So anyway if we hadn't changed those things at home, there would have been no changes abroad. All the same we made major mistakes.

We were too late reforming the Soviet Union. If we'd dealt with these issues earlier, we could have removed the problems and they wouldn't have got out of hand. We should have reformed the Communist Party earlier.

I think I also made mistakes. I could have done far more if I'd co-operated with the newly emerging democratic movements in the country.

Tim Sebastian: But for all the things that you did do you blame yourself for those deaths in the Baltics and Georgia?

Mikhail Gorbachev: How can I not blame myself? I was the president. Nothing can take away that responsibility. Even if I hadn't been directly involved and didn't issue the orders myself to use the troops - which I didn't.

It was worse than that. It all took place behind my back. And it wasn't until last year's elections in Georgia that Eduard Shevardnadze released documents that he'd had but kept quiet about all this time.

But when he did, it became clear who it was that gave the orders to move in troops and use force to move people from that square in Tbilisi. By doing that he won the election. A huge victory. Because those orders came directly from the former communist party leader in Georgia, Patiashvili. As for my stand in these matters, in Baku a critical situation developed.

All the various Part's activities were paralysed, gallows were erected and for 200 km along the state border, property was destroyed. In many areas, the local authorities were simply overthrown.

It was then that I decided that the troops had to be sent in and a state of emergency declared. It was my opinion, and I was firmly convinced that it would end in a bloodbath.

Blood was shed - there had been blood already, and more was to come. And to this day, I regret having sent in the troops. But it had to happen, otherwise there would have been even more bloodshed. So that was the one time when I did order the troops in. To restore order.

Tim Sebastian: How did the years in power change you as a person?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I think I'm still largely the same person. I became General Secretary of the Communist Party when I was 54. People don't change much at that age.

Yes, you gain experience, learn some lessons, but your morality, your creed stays the same. And if I became president of the Soviet Union all over again I'd still carry out the same reforms, and abide by the same choices I made then. As for my tactics - in many instances I'd do it differently.

Tim Sebastian: Do you miss the power, do you miss the responsibility?

Mikhail Gorbachev: Well, I'm getting on for 70, it's time to settle down. And I still have my hands full. I've been doing many things which I hope are useful - my foundation, the International Green Cross, and I have many other responsibilities, now we're setting up the United Social-Democratic Party of Russia.

Tim Sebastian: Tell me about your last day in the Kremlin when you spoke to George Bush for the last time on the hot line and walked out of the Kremlin for the last time as president. What was going through your mind?

Mikhail Gorbachev: That was a sad time, very sad. All the reforms were stopped in their tracks - and at such a critical time! Since the coup, of course, my political power had been severely undercut. So Yeltsin simply took advantage of that to launch his assault on the Kremlin. He didn't even care about the unity of the country. On the contrary he began dismantling it.

Tim Sebastian: People say Gorbachev's mistake was that he wanted to transform the country but did not want to transform the instrument that had kept it from being transformed, the Communist Party.

Mikhail Gorbachev: That's not corroborated by fact. When I became the leader, during the first year I replaced much of the Central Committee and nearly all the Politburo. Two or three times the heads of regional and districts bodies were replaced. And finally we began to make the Party more democratic.

Tim Sebastian: But the one party system stayed.

Mikhail Gorbachev: Do you think - once you become a boss, you can change things overnight? There is quite a road to be covered. I had to form a team of my own but only after coming to power because doing that before you're in power - in a totalitarian society - was a nonsense, it was unthinkable.

So I had to make a lot of personnel changes.

I had to amend policies, gradually develop long-term plans for the people. And I did this. Moreover when we had our first elections it was the Party hierarchy that suffered a major defeat.

They couldn't forgive me for that - so they plotted and planned to bring me down. They failed politically - so that's why they resorted to a coup.

Tim Sebastian: Does Gorbachev inside remain a communist as he was for so many years?

Mikhail Gorbachev: I think Gorbachev's social-democratic leanings became apparent at the start of perestroika, particularly in 1988 and in 1990, when we put forward a new, and essentially social-democratic programme.

Just think about it - it took just four or five years to make a U-turn in a country like that to persuade all of Europe to review its policies, to embark on a relationship of trust with the United States.

All that meant a completely new world vision, a new understanding of our own and each other's interests and so on. Does that indicate that Gorbachev remained shackled to old policies?

Tim Sebastian: Can we talk for a moment about the future. You are going to be 70, you have to manage without your wife. How hard is that for you without her?

Mikhail Gorbachev: Sad, it is sad. When Andrei Kirilenko, a member of Brezhnev's old cabinet, reached 70 they gave him yet another gold star medal - Hero of Socialist Labour. And he said to Brezhnev, "What's all the fuss about 70? It's just middle age. Imagine what that sounded like to those of us who were around 40 then.

We were all out in the provinces saying, "These old guys have dug themselves into the Kremlin, and not even a bulldozer will get them out. " That's how we felt then. Well, today I told the story to some young friends here in New York who asked, "Was Kirilenko right or not?"

With a straight face, I said, "He was probably right in many ways. "

And they just burst out laughing at my expense.

So you see, I haven't held a government post for ten years, which means I retired at 60. So these last 10 years out of office have given me a chance to feel more free, a chance to find qualities inside me which I knew nothing about when I was in government. You know I was never obsessed with power - some people, like Yeltsin, are destroyed by it. Power is the main thing for him.

No matter how he uses it, it's the power, the being in power that's important. And that was never a major concern of mine.

Tim Sebastian: You haven't lost your sense of humour, I see.

Mikhail Gorbachev: [Laughs] No, of course not. And it stood me in good stead. My wife Raisa was a very serious person and she appreciated my humour. Our life was really intense, there we moments of extreme pressure.

I wanted to alleviate that tension, because she was always aware of it. She was very sensitive that way, and had such a delicate personality. She worried.

And there were many rumours about her, all sorts of empty gossip - only now have I learned that people were plotting to get back at me by compromising my wife. She was a fine person, so fine, and so reliable. Very honest. A person of high moral standards, with a sense of duty and a conscience So during the bad times I would make a joke and that would somehow defuse the situation.

Tim Sebastian: Thank you very much, it was a pleasure having you on the programme.

Mikhail Gorbachev: I was very glad to see you and talk to you again.


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